[4 November 2009]
When one thinks of horror films of the late ‘70s and ‘80s, what most likely comes to mind is a small army of costumed men who, to paraphrase Robin Wood, endlessly punish teenagers for having sex. Usually, the only character who can stop these terrors of teenage prurience is the one girl not in a sexual relationship.The psychoanalytical implications of it all are obvious and disturbingly traditional and patriarchical.
The Stepfather is refreshing because it turns the ‘80s horror paradigm on its head, finding a monster not in teenage sexuality but rather in the conservative patriarchy that is normally the ideological hero. This monster of patriarchy does not wear a mask nor wield some iconic weapon. His costume is the same costume many men have long worn as they play out the daily role of hard-working suburban family man: tie and jacket for work, sweater over a buttondown at home.
Indeed, what makes The Stepfather so compelling is that it starts from a simple truth about human life (the everyday lives we lead are performances) and takes it to a horrifying though honest extreme. Unlike Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, the monstrous title character of The Stepfather is both plausible and a rich metaphor for the danger of traditional patriarchy in a world largely trying to move beyond that tradition.
Terry O’Quinn (an inspired choice for the role) plays Jerry Blake, a clean-cut, good-looking and smartly dressed real estate salesman who has recently married Susan Maine (Shelley Hack), widow and mother of 16-year-old Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). Susan is very much in love with Jerry, but Stephanie is still attached to her deceased father and cannot bring herself to trust her stepfather in spite of his apparent good intentions.
The viewer knows from the beginning that Stephanie’s suspicions are well founded—this is a suspense film, not a mystery. The film’s opening sequence lets the viewer in on the title character’s secret by showing O’Quinn tie all the potential loose ends at the scene of his most recent crime. He has killed his family in their idyllic suburban home and is subtly changing his appearance to start anew somewhere else.
While enjoying a backyard barbeque in his new life with Susan and Stephanie, Jerry joins a few of his guests who happen to be reading a newspaper article about the crime Jerry committed just before marrying Susan. When the guests wonder aloud what could compel a man to kill his family, Jerry responds, “Maybe they disappointed him”.
The tension in The Stepfather, then, arises from the question of how many mistakes Jerry’s new family can make before he becomes conclusively disappointed. Jerry does give his hell-raising stepdaughter the opportunity to change before deciding that his new family is broken beyond repair. Indeed, for a moment the Maine-Blakes become a loving, hard-working and prudent family, fitting the image that Jerry keeps always in the hope chest of his mind.
But just when it seems his new family might satisfy him after all, Jerry proves himself to be a monster indeed by exploding at a boy for merely kissing Stephanie. His stepdaughter is outraged and, for the first time, so is his wife. Jerry’s notions of female propriety are out of place in his modern family. The only way he knows how to reconcile the problem is to destroy the modern family.
While the vast majority of viewers would not want him to succeed in his efforts to normalize family life, Jerry remains a sympathetic character. The film is subtle in presenting Jerry’s motivations, but he seems to have suffered abuse from an overbearing father figure as a child and to get many of his notions about family life from television, specifically of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. His life and his culture have set him up to expect family to work in a very particular way, and if only reality would jibe with the cultural ideal, he would not be a monster at all.
But, The Stepfather warns, reality cannot and should not be expected to measure up to cultural ideals. The Maine family was far from perfect before Jerry came along, but every scene between mother and daughter alone makes it clear that, even with the heartache of a missing father and husband, the family was doing all right being imperfect.
As for female sexual propriety, The Stepfather presents both Susan and Stephanie as the sexual beings all humans are, and it is Jerry’s attempt to quell that reality of Stephanie’s existence that turns the women against the patriarch. The Stepfather finally sends sexualized women running, knives in hand, after the masked monster.
All the same, the film is by no means a perfect feminist rallying cry. For one thing, it’s subtler than a rallying cry would be. Susan does choose to let the thoroughly conservative Jerry into her family, after all—he didn’t force himself in. More damningly, though, The Stepfather plays up many shots of the women (especially Stephanie) for sex appeal. Although Stephanie spends the whole film in quaint, delightful sweaters, neither she nor her mother ever seem to wear bras or anything else beneath their sweaters, so little is left to the imagination. Likewise, the camera lingers gratuitously upon nude Jill Schoelen in a shower scene (to the film’s credit, Terry O’Quinn is likewise shown completely nude in an earlier shower scene).
Whatever the flaws of The Stepfather, it remains a horror film with few peers, including (let’s be serious) the 2009 remake. As is so often the case, the special features on this DVD edition do just about nothing to increase one’s appreciation of the film. The commentary track pairs sycophantic, trivia-minded Michael Gingold of Fangoria magazine with no-nonsense director Joseph Ruben, who seems at best irritated by Gingold’s often frivolous questions. The retrospective documentary The Stepfather Chronicles provides some interesting background on the film, but doesn’t stray from the self-congratulatory platitudes of a typical special edition DVD documentary.
Even with the lackluster special features, this DVD release of The Stepfather proves again the special talent Shout! Factory has for going under the radar to find gems other distributors would be too quick to call dated. Indeed, The Stepfather is a product of its time. When better to communicate the horrors of conservative family values than in the twilight of the Reagan administration?
But just like the movie’s cool synth-keyboard soundtrack, The Stepfather remains grounded in its time while transcending it. It is ‘80s-timeless. To this day, the conservative values The Stepfather presented as horror remain a potent part of our culture. The Reagan (and Bush, and Bush again) years may be over, but even with a political zeitgeist that does not stress that particularly conservative notion of family values, Americans look up to and admire a president’s seemingly perfect family. What sacrifices will they make to try and match that ideal?